Headteachers need more support if they are to persuade reluctant pupils to come back
The Guardian view on the rise in school absences: a crisis made in government.
Pretty much everyone with a stake in schools is worried about the current high rate of absenteeism: politicians, school leaders, academic researchers and many parents. The pattern has been clear for a while. The proportion of pupils classified as persistently absent (missing more than one in 10 lessons) has more than doubled in England since the pandemic. From 10.9% in 2018-19, it rose to 22.3% in 2022-23. Data in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is collected separately because education is devolved, but indicates a similar trend. This week’s report from the research agency Public First, probing attitudes through discussions with focus groups, called the situation a “full-blown national crisis”.
The concern is justified. As the teacher and writer Lola Okolosie observed recently, school is “an anchor to society”. As well as providing lessons, school is where children learn to be with other people. Since the pupils most likely to be absent include those on free school meals and with special educational needs, low attendance is a form of social exclusion.
There is also much agreement about the causes of the problem. Covid broke habits and altered attitudes to infectious illness, particularly in households with vulnerable members. School closures affected families in different ways. But the break from classrooms weakened some pupils’ connection to their school. The rise in remote working has shifted attitudes to attendance in workplaces as well as schools, and more research on the impact of these changes is needed. Parents’ greater willingness to break rules with term-time holidays has also been noted.
Advice from Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, that children with mild or moderate anxiety are likely to be better off in school, should help headteachers to promote attendance. A review proposed by Sir Martyn Oliver, who is expected to be the next head of Ofsted, should feature pupils’ views and voices. More breakfast clubs, as promised by Labour’s Bridget Phillipson if her party wins power, would help, particularly in the poorest areas. Headteachers are clear that lack of food and money is one reason why children stay away.
The worsening mental health of young people will take longer to address, given the workforce crisis in the NHS. So will the shortage of provision for pupils with special needs and disabilities. There are serious flaws in the system designed by the government. Ministers are to blame for the current school buildings crisis, the loss of welfare specialists due to cuts, and the refusal to fund the Covid recovery package recommended by experts. A more constructive approach to the recent teachers’ pay dispute would have reduced disruption.
The government also bears responsibility for the collapse in teacher recruitment and retention – one of the most serious of all the problems facing schools. By eroding staff autonomy and professionalism, placing too much focus on narrow accountability measures, and allowing academic qualifications to squeeze out sports and other activities, ministers have contrived to turn schools into places where both adults and children are less keen to be. This is the gravest of failures.
In the longer term, there may be a case for some rethinking of the school day. In some cases, increased flexibility can be an inclusive measure. But in the short term, and given the close connection between attendance and attainment, schools need more support to help pupils to return.